Symptoms and Risk Factors

Tooth Decay - Symptoms

Tooth decay usually does not cause symptoms until the cavity becomes large and difficult to treat. When this occurs, symptoms include:

  • Sensitivity to temperature and eating.
  • Toothache. An infection or irritation of the tooth pulp usually causes the pain.
  • Bad breath or a foul taste in the mouth.
  • White, gray, brown, or black spots on the teeth.
  • Loose fillings.
  • A broken tooth or a tooth that is sensitive to pressure.

The pain may become worse when you:

  • Eat sweets.
  • Eat hot or cold foods or drink hot, cold, or acidic liquids, such as citrus drinks.
  • Chew food or gum.
  • Breathe in cold air.
  • Brush your teeth.

Severe tooth decay may cause a pus-filled sac (abscess) to form in the bone at the base of a tooth. Symptoms of abscess include:

  • Fever.
  • Swollen glands.
  • A swollen jaw.
  • Deep, throbbing pain.  

    Tooth Decay - What Increases Your Risk

    The following factors make it more likely that you will have tooth decay and develop cavities.

    Factors that you can control include:

    • Your dental care.
      • If you do not brush and floss your teeth regularly, plaque and bacteria build up on your teeth. Brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing once a day helps remove the plaque from the surfaces of your teeth, between your teeth, and under your gums. With less plaque, there are fewer bacteria to make the acids that eat away your teeth.
      • Not having your teeth cleaned by your dentist also allows plaque to build up. Your dental hygienist scrapes off the plaque and tartar, giving your teeth a "clean start." Regular visits to Dr. Cross for cleaning and checkups can help prevent tooth decay and also catch other dental problems early, before they become serious.
    • Eating foods that are high in sugar and other carbohydrates (pastries, grains, pasta, and bread). Bacteria feed on these types of food, so eating a lot of them speeds up the rate of tooth decay.
    • Lack of fluoride. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay by making teeth more resistant to acids produced by plaque. If your local water supply does not have enough fluoride in it, use a toothpaste that contains fluoride. Also talk to Dr. Cross or your dental hygienist about other ways you can increase your fluoride levels.
    • Smoking, using spit (smokeless) tobacco, or being in areas where you breathe in tobacco smoke (secondhand smoke).
    • Drinking alcohol.

    Factors that you cannot control include:

    • Dry mouth (xerostomia) and Sjögren's syndrome. Both of these conditions cause you to be unable to produce enough saliva. Saliva washes away food and harmful sugars and helps protect your teeth from decay. Older adults are more likely to have a dry mouth and more rapid tooth decay because of the dryness. Many prescription and over-the-counter medicines (such as medicines for colds, high blood pressure, and depression) can also cause dry mouth.
    • Age. Young people whose teeth are still growing are more likely to have tooth decay. This is because the minerals in new teeth are not stable and are easier for acids to eat away. Older people may lose more gum tissue and be at a greater risk for root cavities.
    • Respiratory conditions, such as allergic rhinitis, which cause you to breathe through your mouth. When you breathe through your mouth, you dry out the saliva that can help protect your teeth.
    • Certain types of bacteria in the mouth that are more likely to cause tooth decay.
    • Diabetes. People who have diabetes may have an immune system that does not work very well, which increases the risk of tooth decay.
    • Using medicines that contain sugar. The sugar feeds the bacteria. Your doctor may be able to prescribe sugar-free medicine.

    Factors that increase an infant's or child's risk include:

    • Going to bed with a bottle of juice, milk, or formula in his or her mouth. The sugar in these drinks feeds the bacteria that cause tooth decay (baby bottle tooth decay).
    • Sharing utensils. Babies are not born with decay-causing bacteria in their mouths, but bacteria are easily transferred from the parent into the baby's mouth through utensils. Sometimes kissing can also transfer saliva and bacteria. You can help prevent tooth decay in your child by making sure that your family practices good dental health habits.
    • Being exposed to tobacco smoke. The chances of a child's developing tooth decay increase with exposure to secondhand smoke.



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